Anyone who knows me, knows my love of West Virginia. I find the state to be incredibly beautiful, with its thick forests and mountain views. The people are also some of the nicest that I have met in my travels. I find myself quite fascinated by the state as well, as it holds many tales of ghosts, strange creatures and extraterrestrial beings. For my birthday this year, I decided to travel back to West Virginia since I had such a great time at the Mothman Festival earlier in the year. This time around, I decided to check off another bucket list location and visit the reportedly haunted Moundsville Penitentiary, along with some other strange and unique sites in the Moundsville/Wheeling area.
My friend Steph and I began our West Virginia adventure at the Archive of the Afterlife in Moundsville. This little museum is filled to the brim with reportedly haunted items or items associated with haunted locations, particularly in the West Virginia area. The archive is located in a building known as the Sandford Center and is located in two rooms on the second floor of the building. I found myself mesmerized by many of the items on display, particularly the exhibit with items from the West Virginia Penitentiary, also known as the Moundsville Penitentiary, which as stated earlier, was the main destination for our trip but more on that later. The Penitentiary exhibit included an execution cap that is rumored to have been used in conjunction with the prison’s electric chair, known as “Old Sparky”. The cap was purchased at auction after being discovered in a rural West Virginia storage unit and all information associated with it leaves many to believe that it is, indeed the cap from “Old Sparky”. If it is the infamous cap, it seems that the Archive of the Afterlife is a fitting final resting place for the cap that was once involved in sending nine souls to the afterlife. However, this is not the only item in the archive that might send chills down one’s spine.
During our visit, we also saw the death row bible of notorious murderer, Eileen Wuornos, a haunted Doctor Seuss book, and a sod collection, reportedly extracted from the front lawn of serial killer, John Wayne Gacy. There were also many reportedly haunted and super creepy dolls, many of whom seemed to stare right back at me. I found myself quite fascinated with an African chanting idol, as I had previously had an encounter with Billy, an idol from the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and found it quite interesting that both idols had been found in Ohio. It really makes you wonder how they ended up in the same state, and yet so far from their country of origin. The closet behind the front desk was lined with death casts, including two of my all time favorite people, Vincent Price and Alfred Hitchcock.
Upon venturing over into the second room of the archive, we were greeted by a casket as well as other furniture and decorative items including mirrors and paintings and an old bed frame adorned with a hospital banner above it and an old timey wheelchair, the sort that gives me visions of old creepy hospitals and asylums, on either side of the bed frame. Some of the portraits appeared to be quite old and many of the subjects appeared to be filled with sadness, or in some cases, the portrait was actually done post mortem. This practice was oftentimes the only opportunity that some families had to get portraits of their loved ones due to the high cost of photography at the time. Many post mortem photos also seem to include children, likely due to the high mortality rate of children during the time of early photography.
Following the visit to the Archive of the Afterlife, we ventured the 20 minutes to Wheeling to get dinner and check into our hotel. I had found a restaurant called Later Alligator that sounded quite yummy so we opted to have dinner there. The restaurant is located in a building originally constructed in 1869 in the historic Center Market area of Wheeling. The building has been renovated to showcase the early architecture including exposing the original tin ceiling and exposing glass windows in the backroom. Alligator signs and sculptures, along with West Virginia regional paraphernalia dot the walls. The restaurant also boasts that it is the only restaurant specializing in crepes from Pittsburgh to Columbus. We ordered an appetizer that consisted of crackers and a wedge of brie drizzled with honey and candied almonds and it was so tasty, we did not leave a crumb. Though I did not sample one of their delicious sounding crepes, I was very pleased with my choice to order caprese on focaccia, along with a strawberry basil lemonade, which was every bit as good as it sounds. Steph opted to try one of Later Gator’s signature crepes, ordering the Hula Hoop, a strange concoction of cheddar, onions, ham, pineapple and brown sugar, ordering a sweet tea to complete her meal. The service was also exceptional. What did I say about my adoration of the wonderful folks of West Virginia? Just so nice.
After dinner, we headed to our hotel, the Hampton Inn Wheeling. However, once we arrived, we turned into the wrong side of the parking lot, forcing us to drive up a steep hill to turn around. We were instantly struck by two things. First, the houses looked like creepy little fairy tale cottages and second, there was an abandoned building that looked as if it had been closed down for many years overlooking our hotel. We took a few photos of the building and were later told by hotel staff that it was an old abandoned apartment building. Had our trip itinerary not been so full, we may have inquired further about the building or even checked it out a bit, with permission of course. I also highly recommend the Hampton Inn, as we enjoyed a very quiet and comfortable stay.
Once we checked in to the hotel, we took an opportunity to relax a bit before heading to the Moundsville Penitentiary for our first visit of the weekend. Even though we first laid eyes on the building at night, one cannot help but be impressed by the hulking stone façade, which first opened in 1876. The penitentiary looks more like a hauntingly beautiful gothic castle than a place built to hold some of West Virginia’s most notorious criminals but one is quickly reminded of its purpose upon stepping aside. The building was originally intended to hold 480 prisoners but by the early 1930’s, it held 2,400 inmates, often three people to one small cell. The prison was plagued by reports of cruel and inhumane punishment, and deplorable living conditions for the inmates. The heat of the summer was so intense in the stone building that prisoners would break windows in an attempt to get a breeze but annoyed prison staff would wait until the following spring to replace the glass, forcing inmates to suffer frost bite and subzero conditions in the winter. Some even told stories of being covered in a layer of frost as they slept in their cells. Conditions weren’t exactly good for the guards either, as they were often subjected to lewd and disgusting behavior from the prisoners in the tiered cell blocks. A chain link cage was actually placed around the guard area in an attempt to curb the launching of bodily fluids onto the guards from the cells above. An additional cell block was completed in 1959 in an attempt to improve conditions and following the second of two major prison riots, the cafeteria was renovated in the 1980’s to appease concerns from the disgruntled and angry inmates. However, these modern updates were not enough to improve conditions at Moundsville with the last inmates being transferred from the facility in 1995. During the 119 years that the prison housed inmates, approximately 998 men died, with 36 of those deaths being homicides.
I booked two different activities at the penitentiary for our first visit; one called the North Walk, which takes visitors on a flash light tour of one of the most paranormally active sections of the prison, where the worst and most dangerous inmates were held. The second activity was the Dungeon of Terror, a haunted attraction in the basement of the former penitentiary. We got quite lucky, as we were the only two people to book the 10:00pm North Walk tour so we essentially got a private tour of that section of the prison. We entered through the former administrative entrance to the prison and were taken into the wheel, essentially a rotating cage that distributed inmates and staff throughout the prison via one mobile doorway. It is one of only two still existing today and was actually featured in an episode of the television series Mindhunter. The wheel is known to reportedly turn on its own, as if the spirits of prisoners and guards are still using it to travel throughout the building. Our tour guide, Jason, took us through the area known as the North Block, stopping at cells that factor prominently in the grisly and ghostly history of the building.
One of our first stops was cell #20. Though inmates in the North Block were locked down 23 hours a day, this did not stop two murders from occurring in the area. The most notable being the death of William “Red” Snyder in, you guessed it, cell #20. Red was a life long criminal, finding his way to Moundsville following a hostage situation and double homicide. At one point, he had even been the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood within the walls of Moundsville. He was known as an inmate that should be left alone but was often well behaved, even forming a friendship with fellow inmate Rusty Lassiter. That is until Lassiter was asked by the Aryan Brotherhood to kill Red, likely due to Red’s potential involvement in the riot in the 1980’s, as some believed he helped start the riot, while others believe that the Brotherhood made the request as a power play and to punish Red for his involvement in other prison homicides . On November 15, 1992, Lassiter entered Red’s cell, where it is reported that they chatted for a bit before Lassiter took a shank that he had created from a section of his metal bunk and stabbed Red at least fifteen times with many reports stating that it was actually 37 times, leaving Red to choke to death on his own blood. He would later be found by guards, huddled under his bunk, the floor stained a bright crimson. In the 27 years since Red’s death, his cell has become a hotspot for paranormal activity with visitors reporting orbs, strange photographic anomalies, slamming cell doors and some have even reported hearing the sound of Red’s gravelly voice, both via EVP and audibly within his cell. As we headed down the hallway leading to the renovated cafeteria, Jason informed us about the “Shadow Man”. While this entity has been seen throughout the prison, many have encountered it in this hallway. Witnesses describe feeling intimidated and frightened, reporting only a hulking dark figure at the end of the hall.
Another notable location on our tour was the Sugar Shack, a location that played a part in another of Moundsville’s notorious homicides. The location was called the Sugar Shack because it was where inmates often dealt in illicit and banned items. It was also a violent place where rapes and beatings occurred among the inmates. One inmate, RD Wall, would often visit the Sugar Shack to get cleaning supplies for his job as a maintenance clerk. RD was well liked by many of the guards and was often seen laughing and chatting with the prison staff, much to the dismay of other inmates who thought that RD’s rapport with the guards meant that he was snitch. In reality, RD would do odd jobs for the guards in exchange for special treatment, hence his friendliness with them. In 1929, RD headed down to the Sugar Shack for supplies, as he had done many times before but this time, his fellow inmates were hiding in the shadows, armed with dull metal shanks. They attacked RD, with one inmate slicing off his fingertips, while the others began cutting into RD’s throat. When the guards later found RD, his bloody body had been shoved into a bathroom stall in one of the back rooms of the Sugar Shack but that wasn’t the worst of it, as his head, which had been severed by the inmates, was propped up against the stone wall of the basement. In the nearly 100 years since RD’s death, many strange occurrences have been reported in the Sugar Shack. Women claim to experience the brushing of a hand against their cheek, or the feeling of fingers running through their hair. People also report the sounds of footsteps on the basement stairs or the vision of RD Wall walking through the basement in his khaki maintenance uniform, sometimes missing his head. Our guide allowed us to explore the Sugar Shack, including the room where RD was murdered. We caught a few orbs and I saw what appeared to be a white flash out of the corner of my eye as we unknowingly, at the time, entered the room where RD died. Unfortunately, I did not catch the white flash with my camera and I had no other equipment with me to document the activity at the time.
Following our flashlight tour, we headed into the basement of the penitentiary for the Dungeon of Horrors. This haunted house was truly unique and quite long, especially considering that Steph and I got trapped in the maze section of the haunted house for what felt like an eternity. After running into several walls and a few broken finger nails, we both escaped, mostly unscathed. We were initially greeted with a circle of “Old Sparky’s” and told to select a chair and sit. As you can imagine, we were then treated to the sounds and vibrations of an actual electrocution. Later, we would be put in a casket that mimicked the feeling of being buried because well, I guess that’s what happens after you have been electrocuted but it was ultimately a fantastic addition to the haunted house. However, if we thought we were impressed at this point, it wasn’t until we entered the River Styx that we realized how well done the haunted house actually was. We were ushered onto a boat that took us across a small flooded section of the basement. I kept my eye on a floating head in front of me, fully expecting the thing to move. Instead, it was Steph who was greeted by a swimming demon lunging from the water. I truly thought our boat might flip but Steph mostly maintained her composure. The animatronics were fantastic, particularly the massive and I do mean massive, werewolf head and the creepiness of the prison’s basement certainly leant itself to the atmosphere of the haunted house.
The next morning, we decided to begin our day at the prison once again, except this time, we participated in a daylight historical tour. I definitely recommend this tour to history buffs, as well as those interested in the paranormal. The prison is just as hauntingly beautiful during the day as at night but the historical tour allows visitors to get a full view of the prison and the grounds. We selected a tour that was presented by our guide from the flashlight tour, Jason and off we went to learn the history of Moundsville. Our first stop was “Old Sparky”. The electric chair is secured in a cell in the gift shop but can also be viewed from a room behind the cell, which is where we began our tour and also where we learned a bit more about the history of “Old Sparky”. From there, we ventured throughout the prison to various areas including the North Block, the cafeteria, the visitor’s area, the new cell block from the 1950’s and the yard. I can honestly say that I feel like certain sections of the prison were more creepy and menacing during the daylight hours, particularly the North Wagon Gate, where prisoners were once hanged and the yard, which is surrounded by concertina wire and once contained the shack where prisoner’s would meet their death in “Old Sparky”. Interestingly, the concertina wire was made by Gillette and still contains a zipper that was once attached to the hoodie of an inmate that tried to escape from the prison. I would imagine that the zipper served as a reminder of sorts to other inmates that were considering the same feat. Following our tour, we ventured back into the gift shop where I purchased a t-shirt and a wine glass. We also took a moment to browse some of the historical items in the gift shop, as well as photos of former inmates. Also, be sure to get a photo of yourself in the gift shop’s electric chair before you make your escape from Moundsville Penitentiary.
To finish out our visit in Moundsville, we decided to head to Mindful Makings. This neat little occult store is situated behind a residential home, basically in the alley and it looks somewhat out of time, almost as if it could have been a building pulled from the medieval days. We were initially greeted by a group of cats, which is always a good sign when entering a spiritual shop. The owner was super nice and told us about a variety of the items that she sells. I was particularly taken by a wooden handmade celestial wind chime, which coincidently now hangs in the window of my sunroom. The shop also sold a variety of wonderful items for all of your spiritual and spell craft needs including essential oils, incense, candles and Shaman’s Dawn blessed sprays and candles. I also browsed the jewelry and was quite pleased to find a nice selection of geode rings and ended up purchasing one with a cluster of quartz in the center.
After our visit to Mindful Makings, we decided to head back to Wheeling for a slightly tipsy brunch at the Vagabond Kitchen. I honestly cannot rave enough about the food and drinks that they serve at this little gem in downtown Wheeling. I’m a sucker for uniquely flavored pancakes and before the Vagabond Kitchen, I was pretty sure that nothing could beat the sweet potato hotcakes from my 2018 birthday trip but lemon and sour cream pancakes are definitely now in a tie for the top spot. They were just lemony enough but not overpowering and so good! Steph opted for one of her favorites, biscuits and gravy and she was quite pleased with her choice as well. While we waited for our food, we decided to sample cocktails from the Vagabond Kitchen’s extensive menu. I, of course, chose the Mothman, a boozy concoction of Crown Royal Vanilla, Blue Curacao, Cranberry and Lemon juice topped with Club Soda and two glowing red cherries. Though, I am not typically a whisky person, the Mothman was super yummy, albeit a bit strong. Steph opted for a sweeter option, choosing the Salted Caramel Coffee, complete with coffee, Crème De Cacao, Butterscotch Schnapps, Bailey’s, Caramel and Whipped Cream. I think she was literally in cocktail heaven. We also took some time to chat with the lovely folks in the booth behind us with the husband of the couple recommending that we try additional cocktails from the Vagabond Kitchen and stating that he tries a new one every time that he comes in and they never disappoint so on that recommendation, I ordered a Blood Orange Margarita with Blood Orange Syrup and Lime, while Steph ordered the Apple Pie Moscow Mule with Apple Cider, Vodka and Ginger Beer. Though our second round of drinks was quite good, I think we both would agree that we enjoyed our first round, just a bit more.
We decided to continue our boozy tour of Wheeling by heading out in to a more rural area of the city to the Mountain Moonlight Winery and Country Roads Moonshine Distillery. The landscape on the way out to the winery/distillery was absolutely beautiful as were the views as we headed up the curvy road and deeper into the country. Upon our arrival, we discovered that much like Mindful Makings earlier in the day, the winery/distillery was actually located in the backyard of a residential home and also doubled as an event center. However, the building was undergoing some renovations so lucky for us, we were the only patrons there that day. We sampled several of the wines first, with Sassy Cat (a white table wine) and Hula Dancer (a citrus and pineapple wine) being my favorites. Then it was on to the Moonshine, which had Steph a bit apprehensive. However, we were both quite shocked with how smooth and flavorful the Moonshine was. So shocked in fact, that I purchased a jar of Orange Mango as well as a jar of Root Beer Float to bring back home and share for the holidays.
Our last stop before heading back to Indiana was Mount Wood Cemetery and the remnants of a home, now an overlook, that locals call the Castle. Construction on the Castle began sometime between 1921 and 1925, with the first and second floors laid out and a spiral staircase added to connect the two floors. Unfortunately, the owner, Dr. Andrew J. Harness was arrested and imprisoned for two counts of illegal drugs sales. It is also believed that because Dr. Harness specialized in “female diseases” that he was somehow involved with the prostitution trade in early Wheeling history and likely furnished medicine to some of the prostitutes, possibly leading to his arrest in 1925. Dr. Harness never returned to his castle and in the years since, it has been a popular spot for locals and tourists alike due to its beautiful views of Wheeling and the Ohio River.
Across the street from the Castle is Mount Wood Cemetery, a location where many of Wheeling’s early millionaires, gangsters and tycoons are buried. Some of the graves date back as far as the 1700’s. The cemetery is quite compact, situated on a hill with views comparable to those of the Castle. A small road winds itself up and around to the top of the cemetery or one can use stairs at the entrance of the cemetery. I wasn’t able to find much information regarding ghosts or haunted activity in the cemetery but I did find it creepily wonderful that when we reached the top of the hill and exited the car, we were greeted by hundreds of crows, cawing and flying above our heads. For those of you who find yourself creeped out by Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” this moment would not have been for you. Once we were out of the car, we wandered around Mount Wood for a bit, taking in the old tombstones and mausoleums, as well as those that are no longer legible or in one piece due to years of neglect, the weather or in many cases, vandalism. The cemetery struck me as a sadly beautiful place and also as a reminder of not only the early history of Wheeling but of the vandalism that has plagued Mount Wood and many other cemeteries and graveyards throughout the country.
Tell-Tale Traveler -Moundsville/Wheeling, West Virginia Itinerary
1) Archive of the Afterlife Museum - The Sanford Center, 1600 3rd St #202, Moundsville, WV 26041 - (304) 231-7134 – Hours: Seasonal – April 1st until November 30 – Tuesday thru Saturday – 1:00pm to 6:00pm, Non-Seasonal – December 1st to March 31st – 1:00pm to 6:00pm – Cost: $5.00 - https://archive-afterlife.weebly.com/
2) Later Alligator Restaurant - 2145 Market St, Wheeling, WV 26003 - (304) 233-1606 – Hours: Monday thru Saturday – 11:00am to 10:00pm, Sunday – 10:00am to 2:00pm - https://lateralligator.net/
3) Hampton Inn Wheeling – 795 National Rd, Wheeling, WV 26003 – (304) 233-0440
4) Moundsville Penitentiary - 818 Jefferson Ave, Moundsville, WV 26041 – (304) 845-6529 - Tours vary by time and season so please see the website for more details at https://wvpentours.com/
5) Mindful Makings Occult Shoppe - In the back alley, 1808 7th Street,
Rear, Moundsville, WV 26041 – (304) 639-7768 – Hours: Monday thru Friday – Noon to 7:00pm and Saturday and Sunday – 11:00am to 7:00pm
6) Vagabond Kitchen – 1201 Market St, Wheeling, WV 26003 - (304) 905-6173 -Sunday Brunch Hours: Monday thru Saturday – 10:00am to 10:00pm and Sunday brunch – 10:00am to 3:00pm - https://thevagabondkitchen.com
7) Mountain Moonlight Winery and Country Roads Moonshine Distillery – 100 Harvest Lane, Wheeling, WV 26003 - (304) 231-4876 – Free Tastings of both Moonshine and Wine – Hours vary by season and renovation activities so please visit http://www.countryroadsmoonshine.com/
8) Mount Wood Cemetery - 53 Mt. Wood Road, Wheeling West Virginia – The cemetery is north of Wheeling. Follow the National Road east and take a left onto Mt. Wood Road. The cemetery will appear shortly on the left with the castle on your right.